Being in tech, I've heard something like this a lot:

"I can't believe our culture is spending time and money on [self driving cars/taxi hailing apps/robots/etc.] when there's so much [poverty/sickness/anger/other bad thing] in the world!"

It seems that the argument is that we can't or shouldn't be focused on making any progress when there are bad things in the world.

This seems like a logical fallacy since one could argue that there will always be some sort of "bad" by someone's definition. Does this have a name?

If so, how is it effectively countered?

3 Answers 3


Some preliminaries: In order for there to be a fallacy, one of these ideas should be intended to serve as support for the other. So, presumably the conclusion (or supported idea) has something to do with spending time and money on luxuries. And that idea isn't presumably about believing. I take it that the most plausible reading is that enjoying luxuries is wrong while bad things are happening.

If your thought is that the two ideas don't have anything to do with one another, then offering the one as putative support for the other is a non sequitur (from Latin: "It does not follow."). The one does not support the other. I think that's the fallacy you're looking for.

But as with most fallacies, there are times when it's wrong and times when it's right, and I think it is not completely obvious which situation we're in.

Certainly, bad things happening can't itself make enjoying luxuries wrong without a further idea to connect them. But I think there are charitable and likely interpretations of the speaker's intent that fill in that link. The tacit (or unstated) premises might be (a) that the time and money spent on luxuries could be spent instead on stopping bad things, and (b) that it is important (or right, or our duty, or just good) to stop bad things that are happening.

If that's plausible, you could insist that the argument is a non sequitur, but now to do so you would have to deny one of three claims:

  1. that the named bad things are actually bad
  2. that it is possible to divert time and money spent on luxuries to addressing bad things
  3. that it is important, right, or just good to stop bad things from happening

You imply that you sometimes reject (1) in such arguments. I would find it hard to agree, though, that at least poverty and sickness are not bad. (Anger, meanwhile, is often just fine.)

But if you accept that the named thing is actually bad, then if you want to assert that there's a fallacy at work, you need to deny (2) or (3). In some cases of sickness, (2) does not apply, because no amount of time or money can fix them. That might even apply to some cases of poverty. But there are clearly many cases of poverty and sickness to which (2) does apply. The cholera outbreak in Haiti after their 2010 earthquake, or the current situation in the Philippines after their typhoon involve a lot of people suffering who don't have the resources to fix their problems. Meanwhile, it is possible to reach them with meaningful, economically-efficient aid. And so, in that sense, time and money can work to address bad situations.

So, it might be that you'd just want to deny (3). You don't think it's good or important to stop bad things — or rather, you dont think that stopping bad things is as great a good, or is as important, as your enjoyment of luxuries.

That yields a consistent position, though it's one that ethicists argue against in a number of ways. More specifically, philosopher Peter Singer argues that many of us do accept (3), and even demand that others accept it, when faced with a situation like a nearby drowning child, but deny it for more distant situations we would rather not think about. Singer argues, among other things, that distance is not morally relevant, nor is the presence of others who are able to stop the bad things but don't. His argument is worth engaging.

So yes, you can assert that a fallacy is involved, by noting that the conclusion only follows when other tacit or silent premises are presumed, and then by denying the plausibility of those. Whether or not you categorically deny them is, of course, beyond the scope of your question.


On a pure logical point of view this is exactly the opposite:

You can't do good if bad does not exists.

No Good Action exists by itself, but only as an improvement of some previous state of the world.

If bad doesn't exist no good is possible, as doing good is fixing the bad (this is symmetrical, some evil creature could say doing bad is merely fixing good things with a twisted view of fixing).

At some superfical level you could merely state that people usually act as if these things like progress and poverty were unrelated [non sequitur, one is not the consequence of the other]. It is even unclear if spending effort/time/money on progress will help poverty or aggravate it.

In more mundane words, the answer to above statement could merely be "It's not the subject !"

It is meaningless to see any opposition between a local individual act and a global observed behavior. No individual can do everything by itself. The only significant question to ask is "will world be a better place if I do this" larger state of the world is probably irrelevant.

When someone reminds you of bad things in the world when you suggest to [create some technical stuff, use technological items or such] this kind of argument can only have any value if:

  • someone shows you that what you are [doing/intend to do] makes the world a worse place

  • someone propose you to do something better instead (that will have a greater positive effect)... and it's still your judgement to agree or not. It's your life, not this other people's one.

Every other comment is irrelevant, those people seem to be trying to makes you support some weight of sin for every bad thing in the world. This is of any purpose only if they are trying to use it as a moral leverage for one of the above two cases. Otherwise it's pointless anyway. You can't do anything usefull (or you can do it anyway if you want, regardless of the other choice). So don't feel guilty about it (easy to say). However, if those other people does not follow such course of action as seeking the greater good for themselves - wich is often the case - it may lighten the burden.

And of course in the end all things are related, including progress and poverty... but see below.

Now for the quote... merely calling that a fallacy is an understatement, It's so many fallacies... it merely shows a total lack of understanding of the world.

Just a few points on the subject (that certainly would need some reordering, no philosophical value here), and it's far from being the end of it.

  • I would start with this implied vision of culture as people. "Our culture" (whichever one) is not an actual individual. It is unclear "a culture" has any sense of right or wrong by itself. People have morality, not cultures. "Our culture" is merely a tag for the sum of many individual behaviors.

  • ethical behavior is not about what I perceive [may be wrongly] done by others, but of what I do here and now.

  • There is also this view that both goals [research on seamingly futile technoloy and fixing bad things in the worl] are incompatible with each other. The best answer I know is this classical letter from a Nasa Engineer to a nun in 1970: http://www.quora.com/NASA/How-necessary-is-the-NASA-program

  • research and progress are by nature unpredictable. You can't easily distinguish between what will and what will not help suffering people in the future. For instance self driving cars could be of a great help to reduce car crashes and pollution level. Or (some past example) most whales were killed for oil, in a way petrol technology saved the last whales.

  • even if we put this at some individual level [spending time and money on futile technology/leisures or giving it to poors] no many people would ever spend all his/her ressources by giving them away. Such people like say Mother Teresa are exceptional and if everybody where doing this "our culture" would collapse. It continues existing at all because we are not doing that.

  • concepts like money are part of our culture, not something "real". Whithout our culture there wouldn't be any money to give in the first place [or, more deeply, you could believe there wouldn't be any wealth to share].

  • Is helping poor and suffering people a good thing by itself ? Not so obvious. You could easily argue there is already much too many people on earth. Helping them by direct means (say food) may makes things even worse in the long run or merely change nothing.

  • as in many other cases there is also some part of tragedy of the commons. Some shared ressources are still seen as "free-ride". It is unclear that our way of live [and I'm not merely focusing on technology or progress, but also on say eating meat, or running cars] has a very deep negative effect on global our environment. I'm not saying it has no negative effect, but that any people can say "it's not me, it's all the others". Progress is a part of our culture that could lead to reduce suffering in the world, it is less obvious for many other parts seen as "normal" living.

It is useless to complain of a global observed behavior, because there is no way to act globally. Every act is a local event. What people can do is either change their own behavior, or leverage the behavior of other people through communication (many local acts) but it should be on something concrete, general grudges won't ever have any effect.

Another way to put all of the above is to state that the world is a complex system where every part depends of the others. There is certainly ways to improve it, but it is unclear which changes will lead to a "better world" by someone's definition. Most people are seeking individual confort and will focus on "good for me now", not even seeing shared costs when they are small enough at individual level.


Analyzing the quote:

  • Premise 1 : "Our culture spends time and money on [progress]"
  • Premise 2 : "There's so much [bad thing] in the world!"
  • Conclusion : "It makes me sick!"

There seems to be no fallacy in it. Furthermore, inferring from that argument that "we can't or shouldn't be focused on making any progress when there are bad things in the world" is the real fallacy here. It is indeed a false dilemma, because you are not considering the possibility of progressing while trying to fix bad things in the world!

Edit: I don't think there is a problem with the general "we shouldn't x because y exists". In the specific "we shouldn't progress because bad things exists", if taken literally, as you pointed out there will always be some sort of bad, therefore we could consider it a perfect solution fallacy :

The perfect solution fallacy is an informal fallacy that occurs when an argument assumes that a perfect solution exists and/or that a solution should be rejected because some part of the problem would still exist after it were implemented. This is an example of black and white thinking, in which a person fails to see the complex interplay between multiple component elements of a situation or problem, and as a result, reduces complex problems to a pair of binary extremes.

  • Sorry, to clarify a bit, the "It makes me sick" should be thought of as extraneous. My real focus is in the reasoning that "we shouldn't x because y exists".
    – imjared
    Dec 16, 2013 at 18:32
  • @imjared I edited my answer.
    – Natxo
    Dec 17, 2013 at 9:16

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